Debate over Messi's record unearths a photo and a legend
Hands up if you had heard of Godfrey Chitalu four days ago. Thought not. Godfrey Chitalu was the coach of the Zambian national team when, just before midnight on 27 April 1993, the plane carrying them to a match caught fire around half a kilometre from the coast of Gabon. The team were heading to Senegal where they were due to play a qualifier for the 1994 World Cup in the US. The pilot fought to bring the plane under control but could not do so and it crashed, killing all of the passengers. Eighteen players, five members of the Zambian Federation, five members of the crew and two coaches. It was the great trauma of the country's footballing history. When Zambia won the African Cup of Nations in February 2012, the players returned to the beach in Gabon where the accident happened to pay homage to their predecessors who had died there almost twenty years before. Amongst them, few were more fondly remembered than Chitalu. Born in October 1947, Chitalu is considered one of the best three players in Zambia's history, if not the best. He won the country's Player of the Year award five times and in the 1967-68 season scored an incredible 81 league goals. A photograph Chitalu in a suit and tie and matching pocket handkerchief from 1972 or early 1973, shows him smiling. In his hand, he holds a ball. On it, it says:
And that is why he is being talked about now. That is why he has suddenly emerged. Because in 1972, across his club Kabwe Warriors and the national team, Godfrey Chitalu scored 107 goals. More, in other words, than Leo Messi has scored in 2012. On Sunday night Messi broke Gerd Muller's world record for goals in a calendar year when he scored two against Real Betis taking him to 86 and two more on Wednesday night in Córdoba took him to 88. Muller had scored 85 in 1972.
Naturally, Messi's record occupied newspaper covers and media reports everywhere. And then, suddenly, someone spotted Chitalu. The record, according to the Zambian FA, was never officially recognised. Now, some in Spain and abroad took it upon themselves to make sure that it was. The identity of those that did was predictable; the identity of those that rejected the claim was too. It was not so much that Chitalu might hold the record that mattered as that it might mean that Messi did not.
AS's Madrid-supporting columnist Tomás Roncero was first out of the blocks. Armed with a print-out from Wikipedia, he took the claim to the TV show Punto Pelota. Across the floor, his Catalan counter-part shouted: "That doesn't count! That doesn't count!" The next morning, Roncero had written a page in his newspaper, under the headline: "The record is not Messi's, it is Chitalu's: 107 goals." The opening line spoke volumes: "After all the fanfare and the fireworks and the over the top eulogies for the alleged record of Messi..."
Other media joined in. There were TV connections with Zambia where journalists were sought out and asked to tell Chitalu's story. His name was recovered, his feat lauded, debates sparked. On social networks, Real Madrid fans, tired of hearing about Barcelona's star, seized on the opportunity to question his record. Or to take it away from him entirely. They had a new hero; a man who could take the record off Messi. Messi was still twenty-one goals away. Record? What record? Some of it was said sharply, some of it tongue in cheek. In Spain, there was a Chitalu ribbon on Twitter and even Chitalu t-shirts and mugs.
On one side of the divide Chitalu was a champion; on the other, a joke. While on one side of the divide, Chitalu's record was celebrated on the other it was dismissed and occasionally mocked. Some of the dismissals were unpleasant in their condescending, patronising tone. As if Zambia was nothing when Zambia are the current African champions. Some of the jokes were a very long way from being funny. And who cracked what joke fitted a familiar pattern: those same old trenches. The same discourse but via a different vehicle, used for their own ends. How convenient.
What mattered on both sides rarely seemed to be Godfrey Chitalu but what his goals meant for Messi's record. Somehow you knew that if the names were swapped over so would their positions. Roncero called on for journalists to be "serious" and "rigorous", which was comic in itself. If it was Ronaldo's record under threat from Chitalu, the roles would be reversed. Chitalu's champions might dismiss him; those laughing at him would take him a little more seriously. It was startling just how seriously some took it, just how angry and aggressive they got. Just how offensive some of what they said was.
That Chitalu's tally of 107 goals was not officially recognised by FIFA was a fact; that it could not be proved, or at least had not yet been proved, was also true. Of course there are questions about the standard of football. It was also curious that the record had not been noticed before. Or not more noticed, anyway. Not least in 1972 when it was set - the same year as Muller's record. Perhaps no one had thought to check a record set in a calendar year in a sport normally measured in seasons. Perhaps there was no way to check. Records in African football are often unreliable.
Or perhaps not. The Zambian FA said that they were going to look into the record and ask FIFA to do the same. A couple of days later the Zambian FA president said: "Our research is complete and there are some amazing results. It is all concrete and recorded, match by match, goal by goal." FIFA are yet to say anything.
In the meantime, Chitalu's story was told. In some cases, as by Juan Ignacio Gallardo in Marca, his story was told wonderfully. It is a fascinating story, with a tragic and yet beautiful end. The images of the current Zambian team on the beach in Gabon are deeply moving, the tide gently lapping at their feet as they lay down leaves.
And that is the thing. Forget Messi. Forget Madrid and Barcelona. For all the self-interest and the sniping, for all the tiresome predictability of the way that that Spain's two sides have taken up arms, for all that at times the tone has been unpleasant, it is good to hear about Godfrey Chitalu, to read about him. Just as one of the nicest things about Messi breaking Muller's record was that, in Spain at least, his history was revisited: Muller became known and honoured in a way that he had not before.
Strip away the sniping and the nonsense, strip away the Madrid-Barça rivalry standing judgement on a player from a different continent, and it is good that justice is done, that achievements are recognised and celebrated, that perspectives are widened. That we know about him. That football and human stories are passed on. And if Chitalu's record is proven, it is right to recognise it. And then, sure, argue and debate all you like. It is enriching for Chitalu's story to be told. Whether he is formally given the record or not, whether he deserves that record or not, it is right that his memory is recovered, that he is not forgotten.
Hands up if you had heard of Godfrey Chitalu, arguably Zambia's finest footballer, four days ago?
Hands up if you have heard about Godfrey Chitalu this week.
And isn't it better this way?